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Maintaining Lighthouse During U.S. Worst Natural Disaster
by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG - June 9, 2016

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In the late summer of 1900, a Category 4 hurricane with a record-breaking storm surge struck the low-lying coastal areas of Texas.

The Great Galveston Hurricane, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, killed an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people in Galveston, Texas, alone. Additionally, as many as 4,000 people died in other parts of the Gulf Coast due to the deadly storm.

The number of fatalities caused by the Galveston Hurricane is far greater than the death toll of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Ike, which struck the same location in 2008, combined.

U.S. Lighthouse Service lighthouse keepers served throughout the superstorm, maintaining a lightship and a number of lighthouses marking the navigable waters of Galveston Bay.

The Fort Point Lighthouse barely survived the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)
The Fort Point Lighthouse barely survived the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

During the Galveston Hurricane, lighthouse keeper Charles DeWitt Anderson, who was in his mid-70s at the time, manned the Fort Point Lighthouse along with his wife Lucy.

Fort Point Lighthouse, located at Fort Point which had guarded the entrance of Galveston Bay for centuries, was a story of survival in an area leveled by the worst hurricane in American history.

The ferocity of the storm grew during the afternoon of Saturday, September, 8. High winds and storm surge threatened the low-lying topography of Fort Point. As the seawater rose, Capt. Edward Haines, the supervisor of the nearby Life-Saving Service Station, and a crew tried to row a surfboat the mere two hundred yards to the lighthouse to evacuate the Andersons. However, the brave men lost headway against the wind and water conditions and had to turn back before reaching the lighthouse.

Chart showing the track of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. (Library of Congress)All around Fort Point, the rising water destroyed or covered man-made structures and their occupants struggled for survival. When the storm crushed the lifesaving station into the sea, Haines lost his wife and a surfman. Haines and the rest of his crew survived, but drifted several miles to the Texas mainland.

True to his mission, Anderson kept the light burning during the storm even though most ships were either adrift, out of control or washing ashore at points along the Texas coast by then. However, late that evening, floodwaters surged and carried off equipment on the lighthouse's lower deck, including the lifeboat and storage tanks for fresh water and kerosene fuel. With seawater rising into the keeper's quarters, it seemed as if Fort Point Lighthouse was adrift on a stormy sea.

With the wind speeds over 100 miles per hour, the lighthouse's heavy slate roof began to peel away. Eventually, some of the flying stone tiles shattered the lantern room windows and the inrushing wind snuffed out the light for good.

Anderson had tried his best to maintain the light, but the flying glass had lacerated his face and driven him below. By late that evening, the quarters' first floor had flooded, trapping the elderly couple on the second floor. With all hope lost, the Andersons sat down and waited in silence for the floodwaters to take them away.

But the end never came. On Sunday morning, the Andersons emerged arm-in-arm onto the lighthouse gallery to see the human toll of the hurricane. In a silent watery funeral procession the ebbing tide carried away countless bodies from Galveston Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. Anderson, a former Army officer who achieved the rank of colonel in the Confederate States Army, likely saw such carnage, if not more, during his Civil War career. But unlike the war, the storm did not favor one victim over another; instead, it took the lives of women and children as well as men.

Headstone of Lighthouse Keeper Charles DeWitt Anderson in a Galveston Cemetery. (Courtesy of Mr. Andy Hall)The Andersons lived to see another day. In fact, they were the only ones left on Fort Point after the storm had passed and the seas subsided. During the hurricane, seawater had completely submerged Fort San Jacinto and, in a matter of a few hours, rendered the fort's state-of-the-art defenses useless. Where Fort Point Life-Saving Station once stood, only four or five broken pilings remained. All the occupants of the installations were dead or missing.

Anderson had recovered from the carnage he witnessed during the Civil War, but he was never the same after defying death at Fort Point Lighthouse. A year after the storm, at the age of 74, Anderson died of “the grippe,” commonly known today as the flu. A faithful keeper to the last, he passed while still keeping the light at Fort Point Lighthouse. In late 1901, he was laid to rest at the old Cahill Cemetery in Galveston. His wife died six years later in Dallas.

The men and women of the Lighthouse Service manned the lights in all sorts of sea and weather conditions and not only served in harm's way, but lived in harm's way. This proved true for Anderson in the 1900 Galveston Hurricane as it has for personnel throughout the history of the Lighthouse Service and modern Coast Guard.

Today, a small headstone (left) in a lonely corner of a Galveston cemetery is all that remains to recognize this faithful member of the Lighthouse Service. Anderson was a member of the long blue line who faithfully kept the light during the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

By William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG
Provided through Coast Guard
Copyright 2016

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